By Brad Reynolds
Fame is a uniquely human concern. We laud celebrities, we praise and scorn people we’ve never met, and we wonder—all of us, even if only in fleeting moments—whether we’ll have done enough in life to be remembered long after we’re dead and buried.
Bad news: probably not. Them’s the breaks, kid.
Consider this: 56 men signed the Declaration of Independence. Their signatures brought the United States into existence, and yet, most of us couldn’t name them all. (Heck, most of us would be lucky to name ten.) If the founders of our own country have fallen out of public memory, how likely are you to be remembered two centuries from now?
“Jeez,” you might be saying. “I thought this was an article about famous horses, not a buzzkill philosophy rant.”
Patience, friend. I’m getting to the horses.
My point is this: fame is ephemeral. It’s not something we should hope to achieve; it’s a byproduct of our actions.
Just take a look at horses. (“Finally!”) I very much doubt that Bucephalus was glory-hungry, that Secretariat dreamed of stardom, or that Mr. Ed longed for the limelight. They ate, trotted, and pooped same as any horse. I’d bet they thought little to nil of their accomplishments and that they were completely content just being horses. And maybe that makes their fame all the more extraordinary. It was earned without trying. They’re famous for simply being the best versions of themselves.
So, without further ado, enjoy this article about some of history’s most notable horses (“Yay!”), which are more famous than you can ever hope to be. (“Oh…”)
Ready for Battle!
When it comes to war, no animal is as tied to human combat as the horse. Dogs have had their place in battle, sure, and there was that time we tried strapping incendiary bombs to bats (seriously), but when it comes to making each other dead, no animal has offered more assistance than the horse.
Humans have ridden into battle on horseback since at least 900 BC. They’re prominent in the wars of early civilizations all the way up to the near-present.
In the Fourth Century BC, the Greeks were some of the first to perfect cavalry tactics. In 360 BC, Xenophon (whose résumé includes: philosopher, historian, soldier, and mercenary) wrote an extensive treatise on horsemanship. Just a couple decades later, Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world with the aid of mounted soldiers.
Alexander’s own horse, Bucephalus, was perhaps Greece’s most famous steed (that actually lived anyway—sorry, Pegasus). After the animal’s death following the Battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander named a city for Bucephalus, and the horse was immortalized with its likeness on currency—a higher honor than most U.S. presidents have received. (“We get it; it’s humbling. Move on.”)
Here in America, we’ve had our share of famous war horses. Sergeant Reckless was a decorated mare with an official military rank. (Her owner, a Korean stable boy, sold her to the Marine Corps for $250 so that he could buy an artificial leg for his sister.) Reckless’ service as a pack horse during the Korean War earned her two Purple Hearts, a Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, a feature in The Saturday Evening Post, and recognition in Life magazine as one of America’s 100 all-time heroes—a higher honor than most U.S. presidents have received. (“Stop.”)
Closer to home, Comanche is remembered as the horse of Captain Myles Keogh of the 7th Cavalry. Unlike his rider, the mixed-breed stallion survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and was nursed back to health following the conflict. Comanche was later celebrated in literature, film, and music—a higher honor than most U.S. presi—(“ENOUGH!”)
Fast-Paced, First Place
Unless you’re a Patriots or Yankees fan, you love a good underdog story. That’s exactly what Seabiscuit was to race fans in the 1930s.
Seabiscuit had a terrible start to his career. He lost his first seventeen races, often finishing at the back of the pack, and he was the butt of many stable jokes. (So, like, the Cleveland Browns, but a horse.) Then, outta nowhere, the stallion set a new track record at Narragansett Park. His owner realized that with the right training, maybe Seabiscuit would make a good race horse after all. And boy, was he right.
On November 1, 1938, Seabiscuit was set to race War Admiral, a seemingly invincible race horse, in what would be called the “Match of the Century” (as was every compelling sporting event of the 1900s). One year prior, War Admiral had been the fourth ever horse to win the American Triple Crown. He had competed in 23 races, and in only four of those had he not come in first. He was the obvious favorite to win.
When the race started, Seabiscuit was first out of the gate, but on the backstretch War Admiral gained on him and then pulled slightly ahead. In the end, War Admiral crossed the finish line running his best time ever for the distance.
“But I thought Seabiscuit won?” you say. “I saw it in that Toby McGuire movie and everything.”
Well… you’re absolutely right!
War Admiral was fast, but Seabiscuit was even faster. In the last moments of the race, brought eye-to-eye with his rival, Seabiscuit surged toward the finish line, crossing four lengths ahead. He was named “American Horse of the Year” and was the number one news story of 1938.
“So what’s the connection to Montana?” you ask.
Well… um, there isn’t one. But it’s a pretty good story, right?
Okay, how about this: let’s devote a moment to Spokane. (“That’s in Washington!”)
Spokane was a race horse foaled and trained in Montana. (“Oh, that Spokane.”) Like Seabiscuit, Spokane was an underdog, but he predated the famed stallion by decades. In 1889, the same year Montana was admitted to the Union, Spokane entered the Kentucky Derby at 16:1 odds. In a surprising upset, he finished the race in record time and became the first (and only) Montana race horse to win the Kentucky Derby.
Lights, Camera, Stallion
From the big screen to television, some of the entertainment industry’s biggest stars have been (“Horses?”) horses. (Quit interrupting.)
In many a Western, the hero is only as good as his steed. Wild Bill had Buckshot. Hopalong Cassidy had Topper. Eyes lit up whenever the Lone Ranger shouted, “Hi-yo, Silver! Away!”
The horses weren’t props; they were characters. They had personality. They had charm. Lunchboxes and thermoses all over America featured equines like Buttermilk, Tornado, and Target. Roy Roger’s horse, Trigger, was so beloved that he got his hoof prints on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Gene Autry’s horse, Champion, got his own TV series.
While Montana has been home to some notable race and rodeo equines, it hasn’t produced many Hollywood horses—at least, none as distinguished as those mentioned above. Treasure State stuntman Bruce Morgan rode Snort (a Hancock quarter horse from the Blackfeet Reservation) in a number of pictures. Montie Montana performed tricks atop his black and white pinto, Rex. Billings native Bud Luckey was a character designer on Toy Story 2, which featured an animated horse named Bullseye. (Does that count?)
The stories aren’t exactly numerous, but they are interesting. Heck, these three examples could be an article all their own. We could write pages upon pages of… What? We’re almost out of space for this article? Why didn’t anyone tell me? I went on about Seabiscuit for half a page! Okay, well… sorry everyone. I think there’s an article in here about Montie Montana. So uh… check that out.
Boy, this article flew by. (“Says you.”) I kinda regret my lengthy soapbox speech in the intro. (“Us too.”) But honestly, that’s my motivation for writing this; I think there’s something to be learned from horses. No foal aspires to be a racing legend. No filly dreams of service in the military. Horses do great things without thinking about it. They don’t care whether or not they go galloping into history (“Hey, that’s the title!”).
Horses just take life as it comes. Maybe we should too…
(Man, I hope this earns me a Pulitzer.)